Jessica Nabongo: What traveling to every country in the world taught me

(CNN) – As her plane began landing in the Seychelles on October 6, 2019, Ugandan-American influencer Jessica Nabongo was shot out the window, preparing for the momentous occasion that was about to happen.

Not only was she about to become a member of a prestigious club made up of very few people who had traveled to every country in the world, she was the first black woman to document doing so.

She was accompanied by 28 of her friends and family, who traveled with her on that latest flight.

It has taken more than 450 flights and more than a million air miles, but it has reached all 195 UN-recognized countries in the world.

The experience was stressful—Nabongo made more than 170 flights in one year, and she says she almost quit on several occasions.

She told CNN Travel, “There have been a number of times where the panic set in and I said, ‘Oh my God, is this going to lead to a public failure? “

epic challenge

In 2019, Jessica Nabongo became the first black woman to document travel to every country in the world.

Jessica I’m sorry

Since then, Nabongo has written a book, The Catch Me If You Can, detailing her experience moving from one country to another during the epic challenge.

Named after her famous blog, she recounts her record-breaking journey, focusing on 100 of the 195 countries she visited.

“I’m obsessed with geography,” Nabongo says of her decision to take up the challenge, explaining that it was something she was keen to do at least a decade ago before she actually tried it.

“In 2017, I made the decision that I wanted to do this by my 35th birthday,” she told CNN Travel.

So, was she able to meet her deadline?

“I’m five months past my birthday,” explains Nabongo. “But I ended up on my dad’s birthday. He passed away [away] Just two days after my nineteenth birthday, it was nice to be able to include him in the fold in this way.”

According to Nabongo, who was born in Detroit, one of the main reasons she felt compelled to write “The Catch Me If You Can” was due to the fact that very few blacks are among the 400 or so travelers who are believed to have visited every country in the world.

“We are used to seeing the world through the lens of white men,” says Nabongo, who used her own images in the book. “And that is different. There is clearly some uniqueness in the experiences that we have, as we exist in the world, as completely different people.

“But also, just from the perspective of how I see humanity. My respect for humanity. I see a huge difference.”

Nabongo touches on her travel experience as a black woman in the book, which was released on June 14, noting that such representation is very important.

create space

The travel influencer has released a book,

The travel influencer has released a book, The Catch Me If You Can, featuring 100 of the countries she’s visited.

Jessica I’m sorry

“It’s about normalizing our existence, because, yes, even in 2022, I’m often the only black person on a plane of 300,” she wrote.

“I can travel for days and never see a person on the same end of the color spectrum. My job is to create space. To weather this change. To say, we are here and we belong.”

She feels a responsibility to represent destinations that are not necessarily tourist attractions as sensitively as possible to challenging preconceptions.

“This is really important to me,” she admits. “To tell stories about places most people might never travel to, and really use my platform to put those places in a more positive light than we usually see.

“I’ve found so much beauty in so many places that people might not have expected.”

These places include Afghanistan, where she stormed the shrine of Hazrat Ali, also known as the Blue Mosque in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Pakistan, where she could not get enough street food, and Iran, where she visited the ancient city of Yazd.

While social media certainly was around when Nabongo first started traveling extensively, it wasn’t as influential as it is today.

The former UN employee notes that having a successful blog and more than 200,000 followers on Instagram has given her many perks, particularly when it comes to travel, but she is well aware of the content she’s sharing, acknowledging that the impact of social media hasn’t been quite the same. Positive when it comes to vulnerable sites.

When I was in Maui [Hawaii]I found this really cool forest, “I haven’t geotagged it [add the geographic coordinates of the location] Because I know what that could have done to that forest.”

“Being an influencer or a person of influence, you have to be incredibly careful about how you get involved. For me, it’s really important to ensure that the places I visit are preserved.”

influencer effect

Nabongo during a trip to Bali, Indonesia in

Nabongo during a trip to Bali, Indonesia in

Jessica I’m sorry

Nabongo is concerned about the idea of ​​”blind travel,” noting that this has become nearly impossible in the modern world.

“It’s definitely something I especially miss,” admits Nabongo, citing Peru as one of the destinations that felt a little overwhelmed simply by seeing so many photos of its historical monuments beforehand.

“When I got to Machu Picchu, I was like, ‘Oh, it looks just like the pictures,'” she admits. “So it was disappointing.

“You think about places like Bali, Morocco, everyone goes to the same destinations and does the same things. That’s not very interesting to me.

“But there are Yemen, Afghanistan and South Sudan. There are so many places that people don’t think are valuable in terms of tourism, where I had a very great time.

“I really hope that by telling my story there is a decrease in prejudice towards black and brown countries in particular.”

During some of her toughest moments on the road, Nabongo began to wonder if she would ever make it to Seychelles, the last country on her list.

But the trip had become more than just achieving its goal by then – she knew it was showcasing places her followers might not have thought of visiting at all.

When she reached breaking point during a visit to Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa, some locals convinced her to keep working.

“One of the men said, ‘It’s not for you. It’s ours,'” she says. “This was really a huge turning point. As my audience was growing and people were emailing and texting me, I knew the journey had become so much bigger than me. These guys really helped me get to the finish line.”

While Nabongo notes that having a US passport gives her privileges not afforded to travelers of other nationalities, she explains that she has been able to travel to more than 40 countries using her Ugandan passport.

secret weapon

Nabongo was able to obtain a visa on arrival to visit Iran thanks to her dual citizenship.

Nabongo was able to obtain a visa on arrival to visit Iran thanks to her dual citizenship.

Jessica I’m sorry

“Having an American and Ugandan passport really worked in my favour,” she admits. Because it is very difficult for the Americans to go to Iran.

The US government prevents Americans from going to North Korea [exceptions are granted “in very limited circumstances”, but I had a Ugandan passport so I could go.

“That was my secret weapon. If I only had an American passport, I probably wouldn’t have finished when I did.”

Her success, along with that of other travelers like her, will no doubt have inspired others to attempt to travel to every country in the world, but she’s keen to point out that this particular goal isn’t for everyone.

Before jetting off on such a quest, Nabongo stresses that travelers should really question why they want to embark on this challenge, “because that’s the motivation that’s going to get you to the finish line.”

She hopes her story will encourage others to go after their dreams, whatever they might be.

“I don’t think everyone is interested in going to every country in the world,” she says. “But what I do want people to know is that they have everything inside of them to do whatever it is that they want to do in life.

“And if I could go to every country in the world, which is wild, I feel like everyone’s dream is attainable.”

Worldwide network

Nabongo's thirst for adventure has remained strong since ticking all the countries in the world off her bucket list.

Nabongo’s thirst for adventure has remained strong since ticking all the countries in the world off her bucket list.

Jessica Nabongo

In “The Catch Me If You Can,” Nabongo shares various tales of strangers who’ve been particularly kind to her during her travels, including a tour guide named Maha in Jordan who gave her a dress as a symbol of their friendship.

“I definitely have friends from all over the world,” she says, before expressing her delight at how writing the book has helped to put her back in touch with many of those she’s met on the road.

“It’s been really great,” she adds. “At any given time on my WhatsApp, there’s probably conversations going across 20 countries.

“People, of course, will always start out as strangers. But if you’re open to it, you can quickly make friends and in some cases, even family.

“For me, home isn’t about people. I think that’s why I feel so closely connected to people when I travel. Because it’s like I’m building little houses all over the world, if you will.”

While she found the process of visiting every country in the world grueling, Nabongo confesses that writing “The Catch Me If You Can” has been harder “hands down.”

But she hopes the book will inspire more kindness in the world, explaining that she’s noticed a shift in the behavior of others, particularly while traveling, since the early days of the pandemic.

“It was all love and kindness, and then it became madness,” she says. “Now you’re seeing people fighting on planes and being just really mean.

“So, I think unfortunately, that initial bump of love and humanity that we got in the first four to six months has dissipated.”

Nabongo admits that this has left her feeling rather disheartened at times.

However, she remains encouraged by her own experiences of human kindness and continues to look for beauty in the world wherever she goes.

And now that she’s visited every country, Nabongo’s passion for travel has only grown stronger.

At the time of writing, she’s about to take another trip to Senegal, which she describes as her “happy place,” and eventually plans to tick off another goal. visiting every state in the US.

“I have six left,” she explains, before stressing that she’s in no rush, and will complete this particular task, “when I get to it.”

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